Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

Plugging The Dyke
When I read the obits for Susan Sontag in The New York Times and LA Times, I surmised that she must have split up with photographer Annie Leibovitz, her longtime girlfriend. I mean, it's 2005, people, can't we say "lesbian"? Repeat after me: "Lesbian! Lesbian! Lesbian!" Now, you haven't been struck with a mysterious urge to visit Henrietta Hudson (a lesbian bar in New York) or The Cockpit (a gay bar nowhere, but isn't that a good name for one?), now have you? Author Patrick Moore rightfully slaps The Gray Lady and The Aspiring Gray Lady for omitting any reference to Sontag's sexuality or love if it's somehow shameful. And it is. Shame on them.

In a 1995 New Yorker profile, Sontag outed herself as bisexual, familiar code for "gay." Yet she remained quasi-closeted, speaking to interviewers in detail about her ex-husband without mentioning her long liaisons with some of America's most fascinating female artists.

An unauthorized biography written by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock and published by W.W. Norton in 2000, reports that Sontag was, for seven years, the companion of the great American playwright Maria Irene Fornes (in Sontag's introduction to the collected works of Fornes, she writes about them living together). She also had a relationship with the renowned choreographer Lucinda Childs. And, most recently, Sontag lived, on and off, with Leibovitz.

Sontag's reticence is surely part of why the two Timeses neglected this part of her life. But she didn't deny these relationships. And given that obituaries typically cite their subjects' important relationships, shouldn't the two best newspapers in the country have reported at least her most recent one, with Leibovitz, as well as her marriage, which ended in 1958?

Some will ask why revealing Sontag's sexuality is relevant. As Charles McGrath wrote in his appreciation of Sontag in the New York Times, "Part of her appeal was her own glamour — the black outfits, the sultry voice, the trademark white stripe parting her long dark hair." Sontag was well aware of herself as a sexual being and used her image to transform herself from just another intellectual into a cultural icon. She may well have felt that her true sexuality would limit her impact in the male-dominated intellectual elite, while an omnisexual charisma opened doors.

More important, though, Sontag's lesbian relationships surely affected her work and our understanding of it. Two of Sontag's most famous essays dealt with issues associated with homosexuality: "Notes on Camp" and "AIDS and Its Metaphors."

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times found ample room to discuss Sontag's cancer and subsequent mastectomy, which were not seen as lurid details but as necessary information in understanding the work of the author of "Illness as Metaphor." The papers also included extensive discussions of Sontag's schooling, her early family life, how she met her ex-husband, even her thoughts on driving in Los Angeles. However, her relationships with women and how they shaped her thoughts on gay culture and the larger world of outsiders and outlaws (a Sontag fascination) were omitted.

There is, of course, a larger issue here: Continued silence about lesbians in American culture amounts to bias. Gay men seem to have settled into the role of finger-snapping designer/decorator/entertainers in the mass media. Meanwhile, most lesbians who achieve widespread fame — Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge and Rosie O'Donnell — have to remain in the closet until they have gained enough power to weather the coming-out storm. This model victimizes those who are out and proud from the very beginning.

The obituaries, remembrances and appreciations in New York and Los Angeles do anything but honor Sontag. They form a record that is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, knowingly false. But don't look for corrections, clarifications or apologies.

The New York writer and activist Sarah Schulman has been, ironically, described as "the lesbian Susan Sontag." Schulman told me recently that Sontag "never applied her massive intellectual gifts toward understanding her own condition as a lesbian, because to do so publicly would have subjected her to marginalization and dismissal."

Posted by aalkon at January 4, 2005 11:11 AM


I've been reading Sontag since I was 17-year-old fag, and I never really gave a shit about who she slept with. It's ludicrous to think that every gay man or lesbian in a powerful position is required to become a spokesperson for the "It's A Small World After All" rainbow coalition. This is just another plea for the pathetic confessional thrill (ie, psychotherapy with Sister Oprah and Father Phil) that is so popular in American culture. I want nothing to do with it.

And, please, Sarah Schulman? Could we possibly quote a more inconsequential writer?

Posted by: Lena feels nauseous right now at January 4, 2005 3:21 PM

Yeah, the standard code for recently-deceased male homo-celebs is "He is survived by his longtime companion, $male_name". Nothing wrong with that.

Posted by: Stu "Got all that out of my system in boarding school" Harris at January 4, 2005 3:33 PM

Sully speculated yesterday that one reason for the de-emphasis in her obits is that she was never particularly public with her sexuality, whatever the direction of its drift... Hitch had noted that she was always tight-lived about her youthful marriage, too.

Anybuddy gotta problem with that? There's much to be said for letting sexuality happen as a private matter.

Posted by: Cridland at January 4, 2005 4:39 PM

I agree with Lena - I haven't read the obits, but I don't think Sontag's sexlife SHOULD have been a major subject in memorialzing her. I heard Michael Silverblatt remembering her with fond sadness and what he emphasized was her fierce intellect and great appetite for literature. We have so few public intellectuals left in this country and Sontag's passing is a tremendous loss. To suggest she hid her lesbianism because of blind ambition is ridiculous and dishonors Sontag's legacy.

Posted by: Curtis at January 4, 2005 6:04 PM

Hi !

The NYT is one of the biggest con jobs ever pulled on the American people.

Amy, you draw attention to the Sontag obit. Did you see what the NYT (via the 100% NYT-owned International Herald Tribune) had to say about Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who passed away recently ?

Well do we older American expats remember the WWF/Lockheed scandal in which the Prince was involved. It was front page news for weeks in Europe - and in the USA - at the time. So I eagerly turned to Bernhard's obit when it appeared in the IHT on Friday, December 3, 2004. (For the quotes below, of course, I hereby invoke the fair use statute of the US Copyright Act.)

Here's the NYT/IHT take concerning Bernhard, the WWF and Lockheed:

"Bernhard earned global prominence by helping to establish the World Wildlife Fund in 1961 and serving as its president until 1977."Later: " … Not only did his business activities make him one of the richest members of European royalty, but his apparent acceptance in 1976 of a bribe of more than $1 million from Lockheed for steering business to it sparked an international scandal." ...


Yup, that's it.

Now, here's the Daily Telegraph (London) obit on December 4th, 2004:

"His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who died on Wednesday aged 93, was the energetic and likeable German-born consort of the former Queen Juliana of the Netherlands; his unremitting endeavour on behalf of his adopted country, most notably his leadership of its armed forces during the Second World War, was, however, sadly overshadowed by his disgrace in a financial scandal in 1976.

The Prince's involvement in this came to light in December 1975, when a former executive of the Lockheed aircraft company, Ernest Hauser, made available to the Wall Street Journal a diary he had kept from 1961 to 1964. Hauser was then customer relations manager at Lockheed's sales office in Western Germany. The diary was examined at a US Senate investigation into multi-national corporations, which revealed Lockheed's long-standing practice of bribing foreign politicians to clinch deals.

In the diary, Hauser recorded Prince Bernhard's demands for commission for helping to promote sales of Lockheed Starfighters to the Dutch Air Force. In an interview with the BBC in August 1976, Hauser claimed that the Prince had an insatiable appetite for money and was paid more than $1 million by Lockheed.

Moreover, he said, the Prince had sent a hand-written letter to Lockheed stating that, if he did not receive $4 million, the US aircraft company would never do business with the Netherlands again.

An official Dutch commission of inquiry into the scandal, headed by Prime Minister Joop Den Uyl, censured the Prince. Although they doubted the authenticity of Hauser's diary, and found no evidence that Bernhard had actually exerted influence on the Dutch airforce's choice of aircraft, the report said that he had "shown himself open to dishonourable favours and offers" and had "harmed the interests of the State". In fact, it was revealed yesterday that the Prince admitted, in a series of interviews given between 1996 and 2002 (on condition that they were made public only after his death), that he had received a $1 million "sweetener" from Lockheed.

At the time of the scandal, Prince Bernhard claimed that he had intended to give what money he received to the World Wildlife Fund, of which he was president; yet the commission portrayed him not as a weakling led astray by temptation, but as a schemer deliberately abusing his royal position for personal gain.

The scandal forced the Prince to resign from all his public offices, including that of Inspector-General of the Armed Forces. He was stripped of military honours and forbidden to wear uniform. He also gave up his associations with the business world, and even with the World Wildlife Fund."


Quite a difference, eh ? It's not as though all this were exclusively European: the Wall Street Journal, the US Senate and Lockheed are, as far as I know, still American. (smile)

Over here, the International Herald Tribune has become good only for wrapping fish and chips in England or using in a farm outhouse in France.

Vive l'internet !


Posted by: L'Amerloque at January 4, 2005 8:23 PM